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Head Trauma: The Worst Kept Secret On The Gridiron

photo of a scarred football helmet
Some have hoped new helmet technology can decrease the likelihood of on-field concussions, but admitting faults with current helmets could mean admitting liability.

Football has remained one of America’s favorite forms of entertainment for years. Even as its ratings fall, the National Football League is estimated to have made $14 billion in 2017 alone. But science is finally catching up to the sport, and it suggests the big hits that delight fans do not come without a price. 

As an alarming number of NFL players walk away from the field with very serious brain injuries, evidence suggests the problem goes far beyond professional play and into the nature of the sport itself. A study proved that even if players never get a concussion, repeated head impacts put them at risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE, a degenerative brain disease that has been called “the only preventable form of dementia.” At many levels of the game, officials are reluctant to touch the topic of helmet technology or player safety for fear of liability. A culture of hypermasculinity often keeps players from reporting their own injuries. And the effects of CTE can be devastating, not just for those afflicted but for their closest loved ones as well.


photo of Harry Carson onstage, in front of an image of a football helmet
Former New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson looks on from the stage during a panel discussion on the Frontline documentary 'League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis,' during the PBS Summer 2013 TCA press tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Tuesday

Host Frank Stasio talks with Dr. Lee Goldstein, a professor and psychiatrist at the Boston University School of Medicine, about his groundbreaking research on concussions and CTE. He talks to Harry Carson, an NFL Hall of Famer and Super Bowl champion, about his own experience on the field in the ‘70s and ‘80s and why he will not let his grandson play football. He also talks to sports ethic experts John and Marcia Mount Shoop, hosts of the “Going Deep” podcast from Blue Ridge Public Radio, about the reluctance to address the issue in the world of football. John Shoop spent 26 years coaching in the NFL and Division One College Football. Stasio closes the conversation with Lori Leachman, a professor at Duke University and the author of the book “The King of Halloween and Miss Firecracker Queen: A Daughter’s Tale of Family and Football” (Morgan James Publishing/2018), in which she chronicles her father’s rise through the ranks of football and eventual mental decline from CTE.

Conversation highlights

Dr. Lee Goldstein

On what chronic traumatic encephalopathy is: CTE is not the brain injury, actually … It shares many features with Alzheimer's disease. It’s a progressive, neurodegenerative disease. And that means that once it gets kicked off, once it’s triggered, it will now progress and spread through the brain even if no further injuries are sustained.

On relationship between concussions and CTE: We don’t see a correlation with the number of concussions. What we see is a correlation with the cumulative exposure to the hits … These hits to the head, regardless of whether they cause a concussion or not, can trigger this disease. That’s what’s really worrisome.


photo of children playing football
Research on concussions and CTE has sparked debate over whether or not children should play football.

Harry Carson

On his first high school football practice as a freshman: I sort of knew that I was in the wrong place. And I wound up going through a one-on-one drill with another player. When we collided, I saw stars. And I didn’t know exactly what it was, but it was like my first time seeing little twinkle-twinkle stars right before my eyes. And before practice was over, I had already turned in my uniform and I just said: This is not for me.

On his grandson potentially playing football: I tried to cut it off early on when he was about 1 or 2. I knew he was probably going to want to play at some point. I told my daughter at the time: Let’s get this understanding. He is not going to play football. So that was six years ago or so, and I still stick by it. I’m not willing to assume that risk for him – from a neurological standpoint – to go out and bang his head against someone else for someone else’s joy and entertainment. Because I fully understand the risks that are there.

John and Marcia Mount Shoop

John on the reluctance to talk about head injuries: I think it’s a little bit like when I was young and in high school, you were weak if you had to go get a drink of water or something in the middle of practice. Well, son of a gun, we learned that that’s pretty stupid actually. Getting as much water as you can will help you. Well the more we learn about concussions – and micro-concussions right now – we just need to inform as many coaches as we can the damage that we’re doing and the way things have to change in practice.

photo of the outline of a brain
Credit 'Brain' by Dierk Schaefer / FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
Players have long known that playing football is engaging in a physical risk. The neurological risks have become more apparent in the past decade.

Marcia on John’s coaching career at Purdue: It was very sobering to find that just a few hundred yards away from the football stadium was a cutting-edge study in the engineering department at Purdue. And the engineers were doing magnetic resonance imaging, and they came up with a lot of the same information that Dr. Goldstein has come to from the neuromedical perspective. Purdue refused to be a part of that study. An area high school was a part of it, and so when John and I found out about it, we went to the athletic director, we went to the head coach there at Purdue … They weren’t interested. [And after attempting to set up a panel event on brain injuries] John got fired.

Lori Leachman

On how her father Lamar Leachman’s developed CTE: My dad played at a time when the helmets were leather, and if you were really good you played both offense and defense … He recalled, once he started his mental decline, eight concussions before the age of 22. That’s what he could remember. He was sure there were more, but that’s what he could pinpoint. And then he had a concussion at the age of 62. He was hit on the sidelines during a game and went down on the astroturf … and that was the beginning of the end.

photo of Lamar Leachman standing with Giants player Lawrence Taylor
Credit Photo Courtesy of Lori Leachman
Lamar Leachman (left) stands with famous Giants player Lawrence Taylor. Leachman coached defensive line for the Super Bowl winning team before experiencing football-induced dementia years later.

On her father’s first CTE symptoms: He could remember all things football, but he couldn’t remember where he put his car keys. Or if he was in a new stadium … He couldn’t figure out how to get in and out of it. … My dad was really a fun-loving guy. In the beginning, he wasn’t ill-behaved. But after the second concussion after 60, then he became much more angry. He would, you know, get very aggressively in your face. He wasn’t physical, because he was a big physical guy and that could really hurt you. But he was very psychologically, verbally aggressive.

Note: This program originally aired on Feb 27, 2018.

Robert is a journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker in the Triangle. He grew up in White Lake, a rural resort community in southeastern NC. The tales he heard about White Lake as a child would become the topic of his UNC-TV historical documentary, White Lake: Remembering the Nation's Safest Beach. In May 2017, he received a bachelor's degree in interactive multimedia from the Media and Journalism School at UNC-Chapel Hill with a minor in religious studies.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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